S.F. Orthodox shul gets its first female president

An Orthodox shul in San Francisco that dates back to 1892, Congregation Chevra Thilim, broke tradition by naming its first female president this week.

Dr. Phillipa Newfield, formerly the congregation's vice president, officially replaced Albert Finch on Sunday.

Finch resigned last month to move to Florida, and the synagogue bylaws call for the vice president to succeed the president in the case of resignation.

An open election will be held in November.

Newfield is not the first woman to head an Orthodox synagogue. Several years ago, for instance, Joanne Jagoda was appointed president of Beth Jacob Congregation in Oakland.

Overall, however, "it is rather unique" for an Orthodox shul to have a female in such a prominent post, according to Rabbi H. David Teitelbaum, executive director of the Board of Rabbis of Northern California.

But while Chevra Thilim's Rabbi Shlomo Zarchi said Newfield's appointment is indeed "significant" for the shul, he did not think it should be out of the ordinary.

"Some people view this as progressive," said Zarchi. "For me it's like we're reconnecting with our roots. Just look at Exodus. Women are at the forefront in Jewish history."

When the Jews were at Mount Sinai, for instance, God told Moses to speak to the women about the Ten Commandments first, he said, "because they'll convince the men to accept them. The men won't want to be burdened."

Newfield's transition into the presidency has gone smoothly so far, especially since there is already considerable representation among women in other lay positions at Chevra Thilim.

The shul's positions of treasurer and secretary are held by Lydia Milrod and Sarah Foerder, respectively.

"We are setting a precedent in our community," said Newfield, an anesthesiologist at California Pacific Medical Center. "We have many Jewish women in our synagogue who are role models and are dedicated, wonderful, energetic and smart."

Newfield has belonged to Chevra Thilim for five years and is also a member at Conservative Congregation Beth Sholom. She said there could only be benefits in allowing all members to contribute their strengths to the synagogue.

"There are two kinds of people in our community — men and women," said Newfield. "Our community is richer if we can work together to achieve the goal of providing a traditional congregation."

Zarchi agreed, explaining, "Everyone, whether a man or a woman, has the capacity" to fill an administrative synagogue post.

"There is no difference between a man and a woman, in that sense," he said. "We all have an obligation to reach out and share our knowledge of Judaism, no matter what gender we are."

As president, Newfield will work with the board of directors to formulate the direction of the synagogue, prioritize projects, raise funds, increase membership and prepare for the High Holy Days.

Her first definitive item of business is to help establish a kosher mechitzah (a synagogue divider to separate men and women) in time for Rosh Hashanah.

The frosted glass mechitzah, currently being drafted by an architect according to halachic requirements, will run straight down the middle of the sanctuary. It will cost between $5,000 to $10,000 to be paid for with the donation of a synagogue member.

The mechitzah, Zarchi said, keeps the "sanctity of the sanctuary" by inhibiting the natural inclination of the sexes and helping them concentrate on God. It will be the first for the 109-year-old temple, originally constructed with a chest-high railing that was not halachic.

"I believe we've finally matured enough to establish one," said Newfield, referring to the mechitzah as a demonstration of "the dynamic-ness" of Jewish tradition.

"Prayer is acknowledged to be observed with concentration," she said. "The mechitzah allows this for both men and women."

Zarchi added that while the mechitzah provides a "separation of the men and the women," it by no means implies that "one side is more important than the other."

In fact, he said the impetus to install the mechitzah "really came more from the women than the men. They don't feel embarrassed or ashamed about doing the right thing."

It isn't about making any gender feel "second-class," he said. It's about "making Jewish people feel more Jewish."